The back-to-school season is full of excitement, and let’s face it…sometimes stress and worries. To-do lists are long, to-don’t lists are sometimes even longer. One thing you shouldn’t have to worry about is the safety of your children in their school environment.
Fall is not only the back-to-school season but also a time to shed light on mesothelioma awareness. September 26th is Mesothelioma Awareness Day and is followed by Healthy Lung Month in October. Though mesothelioma is often thought of as an “old man’s disease,” it can be a danger to people of all ages. Recent news headlines report asbestos contamination in children’s products, indicating our students are among those at risk.
What is asbestos?
Safe and Sound Schools has featured information on asbestos in the past. The important takeaways to know about this mineral are that it was once widely used, is not banned in the United States and that people are still definitely at risk of exposure. For children, the most likely way to come into contact with asbestos in schools is known as third-wave exposure.
These exposure cases stem from products that were manufactured long ago and that have asbestos fibers in them. These fibers lay dormant until disturbed. Asbestos was used as an additive for heat and electrical insulation and is often present in building materials. Once these materials degrade, are uncovered, or are improperly removed, the fibers are released.
The fibers can stay airborne for up to 72 hours, where they are at risk of being inhaled or settling onto other surfaces, like hair and clothing, that may be disturbed again. Upon inhalation, asbestos fibers embed themselves in sensitive internal tissues and can lead to scarring, tumors, and eventually cancer.
How is it a danger to children?
Asbestos is a danger to everyone. It has a dubious history of regulations in the United States that have lead to many lawsuits and a lot of confusion about how common it actually is. Litigation around asbestos exposure cases mainly focused on occupational cases in its heyday.
These numerous and costly lawsuits lead the EPA to issue the Asbestos Ban and Phase Out Rule in 1989, which was then overturned by 1991. This left the United States without comprehensive asbestos regulations and citizens without protection from the dangerous material. Conversely, developed nations like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom do have full bans.
These back-and-forth stances on asbestos have led the general public to believe that the mineral is banned when it is only laxly regulated. This makes it difficult for parents to know exactly when their family may be exposed.
Children are most likely to encounter asbestos at school in two ways; either the school building itself or in contaminated products like school supplies and children’s cosmetics. A report ordered jointly by Senators Markey (MA) and Boxer (CA) estimated that 69.5% of local education institutes still contained asbestos in their facilities.
The report also asserted that “the states do not appear to be systematically monitoring, investigating or addressing asbestos hazards in schools.” The last comprehensive report on asbestos in schools was conducted in 1984 and little updated data on the scope of this problem has been released since then.
The EPA’s Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) requires all public and non-profit schools districts to develop and maintain an asbestos response plan. However, according to Markey and Boxer’s report, “states do not report conducting regular inspections of local education agencies to detect asbestos hazards and enforce compliance.”
Recent news headlines also underscore that without regulation, asbestos can end up in any product. Last year, asbestos was found in a brand of crayons by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG). On the side of good news, their testing in 2015 revealed asbestos in many brands of crayons, but by 2018 the fibers were present only in one brand’s products.
There is no “safe” level of exposure to asbestos, but like cigarette smoking, repeated exposure increases your chance of contracting a health issue. Contaminated art products present particular harm since they are used frequently and are susceptible to breaking. Also, as anyone with a child can attest, things that shouldn’t be eaten are sometimes ingested by little ones.
What you can do to mitigate the risks
While Markey and Boxer’s report seems dubious on the efficacy of AHERA, it is possible for parents to request information from their local school district on compliance to the act. The report also found that most of the AHERA testing conducted recently was not part of the required routine inspections but as a reaction to complaints lodged by parents and school employees.
Since asbestos regulations in the U.S. are lax, being personally vigilant may be the best course of action for parents. There are a number of ways to do this.
- If your child’s school does not make regular AHERA updates, request for them to do so. You can also request to see the asbestos management plan required by the act.
- Read all product labels on children’s cosmetics and school supplies and check for any recalls. Products containing talc could also be contaminated with asbestos because the two minerals often co-occur in the ground.
- If a company has had recalls in the past, avoid them. Check public interest groups like USPRIG for frequent reporting on where toxins may be found.
There are many things to be aware of during the fall season, particularly the safety of our children. Take Mesothelioma Awareness Day and Healthy Lung Month as times to educate yourself on hidden toxins and how to prevent contact with your child or student on a daily basis.
Sarah Wolverton is a cancer advocate for Mesothelioma.com, where she brings attention to carcinogens people come into contact with every day.
This blog contains views, and positions of the author, and does not represent Safe and Sound Schools. Information provided in this blog is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Safe and Sound Schools accepts no liability for any omissions, errors, or representations. The copyright to this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.